Charter link in Albany fliers
Mailings encouraged voters to reject public school district budget
By SCOTT WALDMAN Staff writer
Updated 11:33 p.m., Tuesday, May 17, 2011
At least three separate fliers were sent to Albany residents in the last two weeks that encouraged voters to reject the school budget and intentionally exaggerated a tax rate increase to mislead voters. A telephone push poll also asked city residents leading questions including if they were fed up with tax increases and wasteful spending.
A postal record, obtained by a Times Union Freedom of Information request, lists the customer who paid for the mailings as "School Performance." Tom Carroll, who founded the Brighter Choice Foundation -- which supports all of the city's 11 charter schools -- is on the board of School Performance Inc., according to the most recent public records available. Chris Bender, executive director of Brighter Choice, has also served on the School Performance board.
Two mailings sent out by Mail Works, a direct to mail company, went to 32,178 city residents, records show. Postage alone cost $6,766. However, the total cost spent by the charter affiliate to defeat the Albany budget is likely far greater because a third mailing went out and the push poll was conducted over a few weeks. The professionally printed cards could have also cost thousands of dollars.
Albany's charter schools are currently reimbursed about $12,000 per student by the Albany school district. A defeat of the budget would have no effect on the charter schools, which received $30 million in Albany taxpayer money this school year.
Albany Superintendent Ray Colucciello said the mailings show voters that some charter operators would stoop to a clandestine attack just to harm the public schools. He said that it will make it harder to have collaboration with charter schools in the future.
"How can you work together with someone who would try to defeat the resources for 8,500 kids?" he said.
Colucciello said the sneak attack could turn public sentiment against charter leaders who don't even live in the city. Tuesday, some voters at the polls echoed that sentiment.
"I think the budgets are fine, I'm just wondering where all these mystery, highly expensive fliers are coming from," said Vincent Thomas of Albany. "It just makes people very uncomfortable. If there's going to be this kind of money put into voting in non-partisan elections, then there needs to be disclosure."
Bender, who was compensated $217,000 in 2009, lives in Loudonville and Carroll, who earned $328,000 in 2009, lives in Clifton Park.
Carroll did not respond to requests for comment and Bender has denied that the Brighter Choice Foundation was involved in the mailings. Though that is technically true because School Performance is a separate entity, the organization has received a significant amount of money from Albany's charter schools. Its board members also run many of Albany's charter schools.
School Performance, which provides management services to Albany's charter schools, is listed as being funded entirely by public money on its 2009 tax return. Some of the money for the organization has come from Albany's charter schools, which means Albany taxpayers may have supported an entity that has encouraged them to vote down the district's $206.5 million budget proposal. Money has been contributed to School Performance by the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable arm of Wal-Mart.
The battle between charter schools and traditional district schools has become pitched this year, particularly as revenues dwindle. City school officials lobbied against a proposal to grant charter schools access to low-interest public financing for new building projects and the district is the only one in the state that refuses to pay the state-mandated charter reimbursement rates, which were raised this school year. Albany's charter reimbursement rate is $14,072, but the district is only paying the previous rate of $11,712 per student.
On its tax form, the stated mission of School Performance is "the fostering of the academic performance of students." The organization has also received a number of no-bid contracts for test-grading services with Albany's charter schools. Carroll has described School Performance as a BOCES-like organization that allows charter schools to bundle educational services.
Reach Waldman at 454-5080 or firstname.lastname@example.org.